On Wednesday, May 2, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center welcomed the Honorable Dr. Ruth Oniang’o as the speaker for the annual SEEDS of CHANGE event. A professor of botany and former member of the Kenyan parliament, Dr. Oniang’o has dedicated her life to fighting hunger and malnutrition and creating opportunities for women and children.
Dr. Oniang’o explained her twin passions of food security and women’s rights: “I wanted to make sure Africa no longer has hunger, so I was an advocate for food security. I found that in my country, the women were the ones caring for the crops so then I became an advocate for the women.”
She cited improved crops as being central to African food security. “The work of Danforth Center scientists in cassava, teff, millet—African food crops— is so important! I want scientists to speak up more. You don’t have to be a politician, but you need to lobby them.”
Following her presentation, Natalie DiNicola, a longtime friend of Dr. Oniang’o who serves as vice chair of the Danforth Leadership Council, moderated a discussion, describing Dr. Oniang’o as a trailblazer, one of only 18 women to serve in the Kenyan parliament in the mid-2000s, and one of only a few women to earn a Ph.D. in a traditional society.
Oniang’o described the challenge, “In my lifetime, women at high school were not allowed to take math—it was thought that they could not do it,” said Dr. Oniang’o. “There is no question in Kenya now what a woman can do!”
More than 250 guests were inspired by Dr. Oniang’o’s stories and dedication to improving African agriculture.
“I was really struck by how she articulated in a simple way, the interconnected nature of poverty, politics, agriculture, and women’s empowerment,” said Chip Lerwick, Aon managing director and chair of the Danforth Leadership Council. “She is a great story teller who wove this powerful messaging throughout the evening.”
“It was inspiring to hear Dr. Oniang’o speak about her life,” said Dr. Rebecca Bart, Danforth Center principal investigator who is looking at ways to improve cassava in sub-Saharan Africa. “She sees challenges as opportunities to be bold and brave. She cares about her legacy but is kind and laughs easily—a role model for all people!”
“She really inspired me to prioritize mentoring others, both younger and older—and to stretch myself beyond the walls of my lab and office,” said Dr. Ruth Kaggwa, Danforth Center coordinator of science education and outreach.
“When Dr. Oniang’o said ‘women are the rock of humanity,’ I visualized a thread of connectivity between women across the world,” said Stephanie Regagnon, vice chair of the Danforth Center’s Young Friends. “It was a powerful message to hear while sitting in a world-class research facility that has the same impact on society – connecting, nurturing, and protecting.”
Dr. Oniang’o founded Rural Outreach Program (ROP) Africa and is the 2017 recipient the Africa Food Prize. She received her MSc and MSc at Washington State University and her Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi, Kenya. She was a professor of Food & Nutritional Sciences at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology in Nairobi where she founded the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development, the premier peer-reviewed journal on agricultural development in Africa. From 2003 to 2007, she served alongside Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Maathai in the Kenyan parliament, working on issues of women’s rights and food security. Dr. Oniang’o is the recipient of Kenya’s Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the IFAMA International Award for a lifetime of distinguished service.
View the complete program here.
SEEDS of CHANGE is a free networking and education event for the public. Each year, a visiting high-level thought leader energizes the audience with inspirational stories, uniting people to work in collaboration toward common goals. The event is hosted by the Danforth Leadership Council.